There are various features that identify San Francisco, like the steep, in some cases near-suicidal inclines of some of the streets, and the wind, and sourdough bread – and its cable cars. Three of the original 23 lines established between 1873 and 1890 now remain, two routes linking Fisherman’s Wharf with Union Square and another route along California Street (this last is particular useful for getting up to the luxury hotels on Nob Hill). Today these cars, operated by Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railway) are said to be the only mobile national monument anywhere in the USA, listed on that country’s National Register of Historic Places.
Be that as it may, the cable cars are part of San Francisco. So is looking down at Union Square, a 2.6-acre public space bordered by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton Streets. Once used for rallies for the Union Army during the Civil War, what was once a tall sand dune thus got its name. It was built and dedicated by Mayor John Geary in 1850. In the middle is a 87 foot-tall monument, by Robert Aitken, entitled Victory. This commemorates Dewey’s victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War and also is a memorial to recently assassinated US President William McKinley. Room 1602 of Taj Campton Place looks down on the square. Wake up and that is the first thing you see – and, glory of glories, the room’s windows open, at least enough to get a breath of real, un-conditioned, air.
Look down, and you see the Square. Look up, in the room, and you realize that overhead is what can only be described as a somewhat extraordinary chandelier, like a flattened silver cloche, the kind that haute cuisine dishes sometimes arrive under. Sitting on top of this cloche, hung upside down, are 16 salmon-coloured glass swan shapes. Different, and memorable, and a change from Lasvik and Murano and other chandeliers that you see so often in designer hotels around the world. There should be a prize for the most memorable hotel chandelier – any contributions? The shell-covered thing in Il Carpaccio, in Royal Monceau Raffles, Paris, might well be a contender.
Down in the Taj Campton Place restaurant, there is a Chihuly-type chandelier, a burst of giant flowers, hanging in the middle of the room. The mind might wander to the Chihulys, green one end and yellow the other, in the big areas on the main floor of Ritz-Carlton Millenia, Singapore. But the mind should not wander here, when dining in the restaurant that has remained pretty constantly at the top since the opening of the hotel back in 1982, and is today a serious centre of food and wine. The Indian chef offers set menus for pre-theatre, and for Indian lovers, and for those who want something different. Pick and choose, say a baked yoghurt starter that looks like two balls of goat’s cheese separated by the yoghurt whey. Go on to his version of black cod, two nuggets with a ball of sea urchin and lots of sunflower seeds.
And if you are lucky, Richard Dean MS (Master Sommelier) is on hand. This guy is a dream and the 110-room hotel is so lucky to have him. Study his wine list and you see that last night, February 26th, 2013, he hosted a wine dinner here with Allen Papp, director of Darioush Estate in Napa Valley that I was introduced to a few nights ago. This evening, at the suggestion of the hotel’s GM Ashrafi Matcheswala, he chooses a tasting of Pinot Noirs, all available by the glass from his extensive list. First come two locals, Skewis Marguerite Vineyard Pinot Noir Mendocino Sonoma 2008, with grapes from Alexander Valley, then a Pinot Noir Hartford Court Russian River Valley 2011. As contrast, he suggests, from France, Michel Gay & Fils Chorey-les-Beaune Vieilles Vignes 2009.
Ashrafi Matcheswala used to run Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. She recounts how when she arrived there the lake was dry. One night it rained and, by golly, the next morning they had to get the boats out… talking of boats, the restaurant manager here, an Austrian, recounts how he always wanted to work on cruise ships but he met a local San Francisco girl and that was that. Everyone talks to everyone at this family-style luxury hotel (40 percent of hotel guests are repeats, some going back for years). But I am inclined to call it a day, and, back up in room 602, I look at the nocturnal view of Union Square, and think of tomorrow.